Why I’m a Jerk at Dinner Parties

People think I like to help in the kitchen. There’s two truths to the matter. I do like to be involved in cooking (I’ve cooked professionally and love to cook to this day). But I also like to keep tabs on how the food I eat is being prepared. Anyone who wants to be blase about checking the temperature of their Sunday roast or who thinks that wolfing down raw cookie dough is a necessary part of childhood, allow me to steer you to the Food Poison Journal. If you want to be casual about your own health, that’s jim dandy, but when it comes to preparing food for others (which might include young children, the elderly, people with chronic illness, and those who simply wish to not become very ill) being negligent about food safety is inappropriate. Oddly (and, sadly, for me) this stance makes me an unsociable weirdo when I decline ill-prepared food. I’m the villain. Me. The person who’s sharing this article from Nutrition Action Healthletter only because I give a damn about your health.

How did I get this way? There was the aforementioned stint in professional cooking. I had the good fortune of working in one of the few restaurants where the health inspector had such confidence in the manager that after he’d done his work, he’d take off his lab coat and ask for a menu. I was taught by a master of good kitchen habits. But I also had the bad fortune of getting food poisoning from a poorly-run lunch counter. I was in college at the time and became so sick that the doctor at the campus clinic thought my appendix had ruptured. The experience left me with no tolerance for unsafe food handling.

I generally come across as a picky eater. It’s easier to tell someone that I don’t like a particular dish than to tell them I saw them prepare it carelessly. It’s frustrating to have to choose between social acceptance and risking a potentially serious illness, especially when there are actual safe food handling practices (that are easy to comprehend). I’m routinely faced with baffled irritation from people I’ve explained my concerns to again and again. So, here’s my approach to food: I won’t touch eggs unless I made them, if I see even a slim chance that cross-contamination happened (or an overall lack of kitchen cleanliness and a lack of proper hand washing), I’m not touching the food. If I see children or drunk people sticking their grubby paws into food and serving bowls (basically, if I see children or drunk people in the kitchen at all), I’m not eating anything. Another deal-breaker is if the people in charge of buying and storing the ingredients are inept or uninformed. (If someone’s not actually pouring that milk, put it back in the fridge, for the love of God.)

While I would like to imagine things have improved in the last 17 years, a 1999 study found that “Almost half the people who said they washed their hands after handling raw meat did not, and when they did it was often without soap.” My own observations back that up. I know people generally (and, often correctly) assume that their filthy kitchen habits aren’t hurting them. But that belief can endanger the dinner guest whose immune system isn’t accustomed to dining in a pig sty. As an added bonus, washing your hands (with soap) and being attentive about food safety shows consideration and good manners. (It also reduces the chance I’ll refer to you as a pig, if that sweetens the deal any.)

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